'We can be breadbasket of Africa again'

HARARE - For 32 years — the length of our independence — Ephrame Havazvidi has been breeding a variety of seeds at the country’s biggest seed company, Seed Co Limited (Seed Co).

The veteran researcher has seen the swashbuckling performance by our agriculture as well as its demise on the back of agrarian reforms and economic morass.

One thing that remains in his mind is the once-hallowed status of Zimbabwe as the breadbasket of Africa.
And he wants Zimbabwe to go back to that status, ridding the basket case tag which it has brought upon itself.

“Yes, we want Zimbabwe to be the bread basket of Africa again. We did it and have hardworking people,” the 58-year-old Seed Co group research manager told the Daily News at his Rattray Arnold Research Station base, just outside Harare.

Havazvidi sees no problems on his side.

He has been breeding plants but says production is the key driver to returning to that bread basket status.

“From seed point of view, the yielding potential of the seed is assured in terms of the genetics of Seed Co hybrids; whether we are talking of wheat, soyabeans or maize.

“I think if the economics of production are okay, farmers are able to produce in abundance. With maize, the issue that has been suppressing production is the economics of producing it and the prices. In any business, one looks at the economic sense of what they are doing,” said Havazvidi.

But besides the depressed prices for the maize producers, the Seed Co research chief observed that not all farmers were matching the seeds with regions commensurate with their characteristics.

“We have been involved in making sure that farmers adopt appropriate right choice such as proper fertiliser regime, proper time for planting, proper weed and pest control and the use of appropriate plant density regime.

“Right now I am actually with my team trying to look into how the country has been prejudiced through improper choices of varieties and improper times of planting.

“We are authenticating and actually on the ground proving that. A typical example is a farmer in Region Two where there is rainfall but plants a seed suitable for a dry region. The result is reduced yield”.

Since embarking on the chaotic agrarian reforms which targeted the white commercial farmers, the biggest producers of both maize and cereal grain, Zimbabwe has battled to feed the nation.

This, coupled with poor maize producer prices and shortages of fertiliser and in some cases, seed, has severely affected production.

Zimbabwe has been pushed into an increasingly critical food insecurity situation; at a time the World Food Programme has said an estimated 1,6 million people in the rural areas will require food aid next year, sporadic rains and the effects of climate change are some of the reasons why the food begging bowl remains active in the donor agencies.

But Seed Co is fully armed to mitigate the ravaging climate change as it has introduced the new hybrid in the wake of the new challenge.

Global warming has shortened farming seasons and as such, Seed Co has launched the new 300 series to cushion the farmers from climate effects.

It goes on the Zimbabwean market next year, and in the region two years later.

“The 300 series is coming up with extreme heat and drought phase tolerance and adaptation to very short seasons of production, two-and-half to three-and-half months to mature.

“And that short season development makes them cope in situations where precipitation or rain falls in short space period of time. The farmers or communities are able to survive even under those dire conditions.

“That’s the whole reason for having engaged in breeding the 300 series hybrid. This is not meant for Zimbabwe only but for the whole region. It is mainly there to mitigate the effects climate change as and when it causes shortening of seasons,” Havazvidi told the Daily News.

“We are now up scaling the seed now so that it can be made available in one year, two years to come across all Africa. But charity begins at home, so we have to feed ourselves first before we go abroad”.

He said the 300 series is not only for marginal conditions but also for medium high-potential production conditions where a farmer wants to grow three of four crops per season.

Seed Co has been in the plant breeding since 1941 and has since extended tentacles to 10 African countries, including Zambia, Malawi, Mozambique, Swaziland, South Africa, Kenya, Tanzania and Bostwana.

Maize seed breeding is its core business although it is involved in wheat, sorghum, burley and soyabeans.

Among the varieties that have come out of the Seed Co constantly, are seeds that can weather the stresses that arise during growth.

“We have major stresses which affect plants as we grow them. Biotic stresses are to do with all the diseases. The other stress, air biotic stress, is not caused by organisms but by the environment and surroundings.

“From 1972, Seed Co began producing early maturity hybrids. As the weather conditions changed, we were the first to breed the hybrid which could stand out against devastating effects,” explained Havazvidi.

Aware of the stress and viruses that occur during maize growth, SeedCo became the pioneer in the release of hybrids with durable resistance to devastating streak and mottle viruses.

Among the hybrids are SC403, SC411, SC533, SC537, SC627 SC633,SC621, SC713, SC719, SC721 and SC727.
Hybrids that resist the Grey Leaf Spot disease, are SC402, SC513, SC533, SC537, SC506, SC627, SC621, SC602, SC604, SC633, SC635, SC637, SC708, SC713, SC719, SC721 and SC727.

The veteran researcher still believes and sees no reason why Zimbabwe cannot become the bread basket of Africa again.

To start the journey in earnest, he said, there is need for an aggressive input scheme.

Since the consummation of the inclusive government and use of the multi-currency system, government has not been profligate in its spending on agricultural inputs.

President Robert Mugabe has incessantly blamed Finance minister Tendai Biti for not doing enough to support indigenous farmers, who now form the bulky of agricultural production.

But, Biti, has seen reason to maintain a hawkish approach to expenditure, and has, on the basis of what he has in the treasury, funded the input scheme in measured fashion.

By February 2012, Biti had availed $6 million towards the scheme.

Mugabe and his cronies, before the formation of the inclusive government, used to dole out farming inputs mainly to Zanu PF supporters as part of appeasement, at least according to their critics.

Recently, Mugabe launched his input scheme after securing $20 million from his ‘‘friends’’ under “Friends of the President” banner.

Friends or no friends, Zimbabwe longs for its bread basket of Africa status!


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